Amy Watson offers a disclaimer: apple pie is very personal.
Some people would never consider adding any spice to an apple pie, preferring to let the flavor of the apples stand on its own. Others couldn’t imagine biting into a slice of pie without a hint of spice. Some want soft apples. Others prefer crispier apples. Some like a flaky crust. OK, you get the point.
“Some people will never accept cinnamon,” said Watson, who ran the apple pie contest at Hollis Old Home Days held last weekend. “Some really like it plain Jane.”
When Watson moved to Hollis 14 years ago, she said she had no idea how seriously New England took apple pie. She knows now. She’s entered the pie contest at Hollis Old Home Days numerous times herself, with her pies standing tall. The contest typically has at least 40 pies.
“I want mine to taste like a slightly tart apple, not too mushy but not too crisp,” Watson said.
Watson said she likes a little spice in her pie, but not too much. She combines cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. Be careful though, she says: add too much and the spice will overpower the pie.
Carl Hills owns the apple orchard at Kimball Fruit Farm, which straddles the border of Hollis and Pepperell, Mass., and which features more than 40 apple varieties. His father owned the apple orchard before him, and his mother was a home ec teacher who used to make an “unbelievable” apple pie. That makes him qualified to talk pie, he laughed.
“I believe in mixing apples of different textures and flavors, almost like a seasonal kind of thing,” Hills said. “One thing, my mother was never big into adding cinnamon. A lot of people do that, but she wanted the natural flavor of the apples to come through. She did add sugar though.”
Hills still says no to cinnamon.
Though Hills does mix his apples, the centerpiece is the Spencer, which he said is a cross between a McIntosh and a Golden Delicious. Hills said Spencers make for a nice, soft texture in a cooked pie.
“It’s got the nice flavor of the Mac, but it holds up well to the pie,” Hills said. “If you use Macs — they’re great for applesauce, because they break down. [A Spencer] has almost like a creamier texture than let’s say a Cortland, which has a more solid texture.”
Picking the right apples is important. And picking the right ones isn’t always easy for the untrained apple pie maker. Choose a tasty snacking apple like a Golden Delicious or a Honey Crisp and you’ll be left with a dull, boring and wet pie, Watson said. She’s learned that not all local heirloom varieties are created equal either, in terms of pie making.
Watson said her pie recipe is always evolving, if ever so slightly. She targets Cortlands and Spencers as well, but she always uses a mix. She’ll toss in a few Macs to create some flavor and texture variety.
“They add a nice consistency to the pie,” Watson said. “But only a few.”
In a single pie, Watson will use seven to nine apples, maybe three Spencers, three Cortlands and a couple McIntosh. (Picking up an apple peeler/corer will save home cooks a whole lot of time, Watson said.) For guidance, Watson looks to the Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, though she said she’s learned much more from local farmers.
Cortlands are particularly popular for pies, as they do stand up to cooking. The only downfall, Hills said, is that Cortlands do not turn brown during cooking. The flavor and texture will be there, but the whiteness of the apple sort of gives the pie a somewhat uncooked look, Hill ssaid.
“I believe an apple pie should have a browned look to it,” Hills said.
For the crust, Watson said she used to rely on an all-butter crust. She likes the crust to be flaky, rather than doughy. She now uses a mix of shortening and butter, which creates the flakiness she’s looking for. Nobody wants to cut into an apple pie and then just have the pie fall apart. They want a nice wedge to stand on its own, she said.
Some might poo-poo it, but Watson suggested visiting the freezer aisle at your local grocery store and picking out a frozen pie crust. She figures it’s easier to experiment with your pie if you don’t have to worry about making a new crust each time.
While Hills admitted he’d never done so himself, he said he recently tried a pie crust with crushed almonds: “I’ll tell you what, that really makes a nice flavor in the crust.”